Purity of Heart, 1 (Intent)

“Blessed are the pure in heart…” (-Jesus)

This whole obsession of mine – “obsession” used loosely mainly because my fatherhood-addled brain cannot conjure a better term – with the “heart” originates with a single verse of Scripture, from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-8. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” he says, “for they shall see God.”

Now, I don’t think I am alone in this – I want to “see” God. Maybe not physically or visually – it’s not that I want to see some concrete image of the otherwise numinous, not that I want to run into God in some human form (i.e. George Burns [O, God!] or Alanis Morrisette [Dogma]) – but in a deeper sense. To some degree in this aspect of existence, and more so in whatever might be next, I want to know the presence and real-ness of my Creator.

And if Jesus’ words lay out the quality of those who will “see” God – i.e., the “pure in heart” – then I want to know and be “pure in heart.” And herein lies my first question, and struggle. What does it mean to be “pure in heart.”

Now, I know from others that Soren Kierkegaard apparently deals with this in one of his books – and I tried to read it. But it’s a bit dense for someone like I who is, at this stage in his life, most often reading the equivalent of Dr. Seuss books (to my 2 year old son!)… And in some recent study, which I’ll eventually get to on this blog (think of this blog as a series of related thoughts, or the equivalent of a not-great book on spirituality), I find some resonance with St. Augustine in his own definition of “purity of heart.”

But for now, before delving into theological speculation, let me pursue some thoughts on “purity of heart” though recollection…

My first “love” was my high school girlfriend, Sharon. We met during my senior year and dated through the school year and into the summer. She attended another high school, we met because we were members of competing teams (Academic Decathlon, not anything sporty), and I still remember her cheers for me when I received my medals at the state level… Before I knew her name she was simply “the cute one” at the back of the bus… Ah, recollections…

Anyway, the point is that while we were dating, we had a repeated conversation. (It must have been repeated, because I remember it, and I have a notoriously bad memory.) She often referred to me as a “perfect gentleman.” I challenged her on this, assuring her that if she knew what I was thinking/feeling at different times, she wouldn’t assess me as such. Her response was along the lines that “its not that a gentlemen doesn’t have such thoughts, but that they don’t rule his actions.”

So, in her view, I was a gentleman because I wasn’t trying to pursue the myriad and sundry fantasies that routinely crossed my mind unbidden. As well as those many more that were intentionally conjured by my adolescent imagination…

And I have always thought – or vainly hoped, more like – that her assessment was more or less accurate. That being a “gentleman” was about the outer life, not the inner life… Thus I could allow my imaginings to run far away from reality, while still holding on to the gilded view she had conjured for me. (Alas, in reality my other forays into relationships and dating were all fundamentally and irretrievably marred by other, unseen (by me) defects in my psyche and personality, but that is not here nor there…)

And, perhaps there might be some truth to the sage wisdom of my teenage crush. But being a gentleman may not be the same as being “pure in heart…”

Which all brings me to the word for today’s Pureheart: Intent

Here is my question/struggle. Is “purity of heart” best determined – or demonstrated – by our actions? Or by the “purity” of our inner selves (i.e. thoughts, imaginations, etc)? Are we “pure in heart” when we don’t act in certain, non-pure ways; or are we pure in heart when we don’t think or feel in certain, non-pure ways?

Jesus seems to suggest both that evil things rise up from one’s heart (i.e. Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21) – as well as that one is “unclean” (unpure?) based on what comes out of the heart (Matthew 15:18), but also that the good in one’s heart flows out into good deeds (Luke 6:45).

So is a man who is “pure of heart” one who allows the good in his heart to manifest in good deeds while not allowing the inevitable evil that might originate there to influence action (i.e. Sharon’s definition of a “gentleman”)?

I’d still like to think so, but I find it hard to square with some later statements in Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount,” particularly when he declares that whoever looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his heart. That suggests, to me, that one who is “pure of heart” is consciously aware of the evil that might rise in the heart and able to refrain from it…

The more I struggle with it, the more I realize that “purity of heart” has much to do with our intent. Both our intent with our actions, and our intent with our inner lives.

As I write tonight, I’m in San Diego. We’ll be visiting the aquarium, beaches, etc, over the next few days.

If while we are out I find myself drawn to look at another – let’s say, for instance, one who looks good in her bikini – I believe my intent is directly related to purity of heart. If my intent is simply to recognize a fellow child of God (one who is perhaps not over-eating and under-exercising such as myself but caring for what God has given her), to praise God for His creation, to pray for her peace and welfare, to offer words of hope/encouragement (doubtful in any case as I’m an introvert and don’t talk to strangers easily), etc, then perhaps my heart is pure. But if my eye lingers on the “hot bod” simply for its sake, or because some subconscious part of me is beginning to kindle some fantasty, or – in the words of Jesus – I’m simply looking “lustfully,” than my intent suggests that my heart is not pure.

Intent matters. Not just that which influences outer actions, but also that which guides and motivates our inner lives. Which is, I will admit, a hard teaching. Because I know, well and truly, that in such a case I am nowhere near being “pure in heart.”

Think of it this way, the difference between manslaughter and homicide? Intent.

Sooo… if I really desire to “see” God, I need to seek to be pure in heart, not shrinking from the difficulty (because I don’t seek to do it alone – I believe God, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, will work with me to pursue such a goal). I must seek to live in such a way that my intentions – those behind my actions, my thoughts, even my imaginings – are pure.

It’s not enough to “be a gentleman” simply by not acting on lewd/impure thoughts; to truly be “pure in heart” I have to help grow/train/transform my heart so that all that originates within it is pure.

That’s a tall order, and something I’ve been reflecting on for some time. A calling of sorts. And, thankfully, I know that I am not alone, and can draw wisdom from others.

For now, I need to be intentional on what I allow to rise up in my heart. So I’ll close today’s ramblings with some words of advice from the Apostle Paul to the Philippians: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)


One response to “Purity of Heart, 1 (Intent)

  1. Your questions brought me to the same or a similar conclusion. That in addition to not acting on thoughts that we believe are not pure, there needs to be an ongoing effort to reduce the frequency of the impure thoughts. God’s grace takes care of the messups, but we need to keep pursuing the perfection exhibited by Jesus.

    By the way, I just read your Ronnie Holmes piece. I’d say that your writing skills began early.

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